May 26th 2021

It All Adds Up: Exploring the Present and Potential of 3D Printing Technology


Additive manufacturing (AM) — more commonly known as 3D printing — has pivoted from a niche solution to a supply chain mainstay. As AMFG notes, the materials market for 3D printing technology alone is now worth more than $1.5 billion and is on track to add another $4.5 billion in just five years. And according to a recent Ultimaker survey, pandemic pressures have also spurred an uptick in additive manufacturing interest, with 71% of companies now aware of 3D-printing potential and 39% already adopting the technology.

But how did AM get its start? How does it work? What’s currently being done with 3D printed materials, and what’s on the horizon for this build-as-you-go solution?

Making the Math Work

While 3D-printing advancements have come fast and furious in the last few years, the underlying concept is more than three decades old. As The American Society of Mechanical Engineers notes, the first 3D-printing technology patent was filed in 1980 by Hideo Kodama, who developed a photopolymer-based printing system that used UV light to harden materials.

Although Kodama’s idea was never commercialized, it paved the way for advancement in the AM space. In 1983, Charles Hull created the first stereolithography apparatus (SLA), and he obtained the first SLA printing patent in 1986. In 1987, Carl Deckard patented the selective laser sintering (SLS) process, and in 1988, the 3D Systems company began selling the first commercial, rapid-prototyping printer, known as the SLA-1.

Rapid development followed. By 1999, the first 3D-printed organ was used in a transplant surgery, and in 2005, Dr. Adrian Bowyer created a self-replicating print process to improve output speed. By 2009, the price of 3D printers fell from $10,000 to $1,000. And in 2011, the University of Southampton printed the world’s first unmanned aircraft. Industry specialization came next with the creation of materials such as bio-ink for medical applications and thermoplastic polymers for aerospace. By 2019, the expiration of old patents combined with the rise of open-source printing solutions blew the development doors off — today, there are more than 170 3D-printer manufacturers worldwide catering to everything from at-home hobbyists to multinational corporations.

Multiplying the Impact

The “additive” adjective in AM speaks to the nature of the 3D printing process. Where traditional manufacturing focuses on the creation of fully formed parts and objects, 3D printers apply material layer by layer to produce the end result. While this generally results in slower production speeds, it permits the creation of purpose-built objects that can be as complex — or as simple — as companies require. In the case of aerospace development, for example, 3D printing makes it possible to reduce both weight and volume by printing contiguous parts that fit into aircraft fuselage or cockpits like perfectly formed puzzle pieces.

However, like any commercial technology, there’s always room for improvement. As 3D Printing Media notes, one of the top printing priorities is speed. The faster devices can reliably print parts and products, the better the bottom line for manufacturing firms. Typically measured in millimeters per hour, many SLA systems are capable of printing between 20 and 40 millimeters of material every 60 minutes. However, new developments offer the potential for production speeds up to 65 mm/hour and prototyping speeds that reach 100 mm/hour — without compromising the form or function of output parts.

Also in development are new 3D-printing materials that offer improved properties or unique compositions for specific applications. One area of interest is composite materials such as electrostatic dissipative PolyEtherKetoneKetone (ESD PEKK) — a thermoplastic that contains discontinuous carbon fibers to help reduce the risk of unexpected static discharge in aerospace applications, offering improved thermal resistance. Other areas of advancement include elastomeric materials that are soft and flexible yet strong and tough, along with high-performance ceramics that offer increased strength along with enhanced temperature and chemical resistance.

Exploring Exponential Growth

It’s one thing to talk about materials and manufacturing times, but what are companies actually doing with 3D-printing technologies? And what’s on the horizon? Here’s a look at some of the most interesting innovations in the AM market space.

Space-ready thermoplastics

New materials such as ESD PEKK now make it possible for aerospace manufacturing firms to create purpose-built parts that can withstand even the most inhospitable environments. Along with built-in static discharge capabilities, this advanced thermoplastic also features high thermal stability, minimal susceptibility to gamma radiation and no outgassing. These features make it ideal for vacuum space environments where even molecule-thin outgassing layers can lead to serious functional failures.

Lobster-based load bearing

Biological materials often come with unique properties that aren’t easily replicated in artificial settings. Case in point? Lobster shells.

As Science Daily notes, the spiral construction of lobster shells provide high-performance protection against both predators and environmental forces. Now, researchers from RMIT University have created 3D printing materials that bio-mimick lobster shells’ spiral patterns and applied them to 3D concrete creations. The result? Overall durability and the ability to precisely reinforce concrete structures as required.

Lightning-fast limb production

While 3D-printed organs have become more commonplace as manufacturing technology evolves, two common problems persist: speed and size. It makes sense; the smaller the organ, the easier and quicker it is to print, while larger organs and limbs, such as legs, arms or hearts, are much more difficult to produce. However, according to Design News, significant progress is now being made in this area thanks to the use of hydrogels — materials that are mostly made of water and are currently used to make products such as contact lenses or diaper gels.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo, co-led by associate professor Ruogang Zhao, developed a 3D-printing method that made it possible to create life-sized organs and limbs, such as a human hand, in less than 20 minutes. Although challenges still exist around effective transplant and integration into patients’ bodies, these biomedical miracles highlight a bright future for lightning-fast limb creation.

Hitting closer to home

There’s also a push to scale up additive manufacturing efforts even further by applying the concept to home construction. As Tech News World notes, there are substantive benefits to this approach. Build times could be reduced from eight weeks to just a few days, construction waste could be cut by more than 50%, and 3D-printed homes could be purpose-built to survive in specific environments. For example, 3D-printed structures in China have been engineered to survive magnitude 8.0 earthquakes.

Although this particular application remains on the not-too-distant horizon here in North America, there are significant advantages to AM-driven home building, especially as construction and labor costs continue to increase.

Adding It All Up

Bit by bit, layer by layer, 3D printing technology has evolved from niche application to international operation. And while there’s still room to grow — from improved thermoplastics to printed prosthetics and high-speed home builds — additive solutions now offer a way to multiply the impact of manufacturing at scale.

Are you interested in all things related to technology? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.